Clinical psychologist Sandra Papoutsis has spent much of her life providing a safe space and helping individuals nurture their mental and emotional health. Looking back on her journey in psychology which spans over 25 years, she remembers how tumultuous and nearly impossible it all seemed in the beginning.
“When I was in about standard six, one of my teachers was in the process of completing her degree to become a psychologist and I just remember deciding that’s what I’m going to be – a psychologist,” she said.
However, growing up in the small Johannesburg community of Malvern and attending a small convent school meant that achieving her dream seemed quite far-fetched for many of those around her.
“They [the school] didn’t really expect us to pursue professional careers so they didn’t even offer sufficient subjects for me to qualify for university entrance.
I had to convince them to let me do some of the subjects in higher grade. And I remember one of the nuns that was teaching me asking “why are you doing all this? You’re not going to university. You’re going to become a teller at the OK Bazaars!”
Upon arriving at university, Papoutsis was quickly met with eye-opening experiences and had to adapt to change.
“Wits was a huge eye-opener for me because there were a lot of people. Nobody cared who you were, nobody learnt your name so it was a big shock to me.
I would say I was quite introverted and shy. I had a bit of a social phobia so I wasn’t comfortable being around big groups of people. But I knew I wanted to become a psychologist so I pushed through,” she explained.
In 1998, she completed her Master’s degree and was able to start seeing clients. Since then, she has served as a safe space for many; helping individuals to function better and contributing immensely to their overall wellness and quality of life. She has two practices – one at The Berg Medicross and another in Sundowner.
In recent years, we have seen mental health become increasingly topical. We have also witnessed the gradual unveiling of the thick stigma that had previously engulfed all things mental health. While these are great strides, the correct use of terminology and how we view ourselves in relation to mental health conditions matters just as much.
“I’m finding that people, particularly teenagers, go online and look up what they’re feeling. And so a lot of the clients come to me referring to themselves using that particular condition.
So I would say to my clients, “you’re showing symptoms of that condition but let’s not use the diagnostic label to define you. The label is there for medical purposes because we need to be able to say this is what we’re treating”.
She also added that symptoms which make up a diagnostic label are a telltale sign that something is happening and should subside when one is empowered to live, process and cope differently.
When it comes to supporting a loved one who is experiencing mental health challenges, Papoutsis recommends the sharing of resources as well as acting out of understanding and love.
“I think SADAG is a brilliant resource that is available for people to reach out to. It’s a phone call away and you can say what you are struggling with and be pointed in the right direction.
A number of psychologists in South Africa have also offered their time to SADAG so that if a person can’t afford to pay for sessions then there are psychologists available”.
In the process of supporting and assisting those nearest and dearest to us, it is possible to overwhelm them and cause unintentional harm. Therefore, we are encouraged to stay away from constantly providing possible solutions or mentioning steps they should have taken to fix their situation.
“Ask them how they’re feeling and just be quiet with them so that they can talk without being bombarded. When we see a loved one in trouble, we are fearful and want to fix the problem. We need to calm our fear and operate from a place of love,” she advised.
In today’s social media age, our mental health can easily be affected. Papoutsis recommends the healthy and intentional use of social media, especially amongst youngsters.
“I feel that a lot of young people today seek their self-worth on social media. There’s the pressure of having to post an ideal perfect life that does not necessarily reflect what is actually going on in real life. There is also the buying into social images that are portrayed by their friends and peers,” she said.
Be that as it may, the impact and relevance of social media cannot be denied and managing our online activity with much awareness is key. This includes being aware of how much time is spent on various apps as well as the kind of resources that are tapped into.
“There’s a lot of destructive material on things like Instagram and TikTok but there’s a lot of constructive stuff as well. So it’s about learning to filter out the destructive and welcoming the constructive”.
Tips to nurture your mental health
Experienced clinical psychologist Sandra Papoutsis encourages taking care of the everyday little things in order to nurture our mental health and function at our best. Below are some of her useful tips.
- Feel it to heal it
With everything going on both locally and internationally, we are indeed living in stressful and uncertain times. Acknowledging this is important and making ourselves aware of this creates some form of calm. After all, the first step to healing is acknowledgment.
- Rest, rest and even more rest
Although the importance of sleeping enough can easily be overlooked, getting 7 – 9 hours of sleep each day remains crucial.
A healthy sleep cycle means our chemicals are more balanced and this makes us better able to cope with life more optimally.
- Eat food that fuels you
“A lot of the teenagers that come and see me in therapy don’t eat most of the day and when they do eat, it’s something that pushes their sugar levels through the roof. After that, they hit a massive downer,” said Papoutsis.
It is highly beneficial to have a healthy diet as well as to eat consistently. This helps with mood swings and overall wellness.
- Exercise is wise
Exercise produces natural endorphins in our brains. Thus, it can be viewed as a natural antidepressant. As much as possible, we need to exercise and allow our bodies to produce these endorphins. Doing so will ease our state of mind and improve our resilience to cope with the everyday stresses of life.